by Carla Occaso
MONTPELIER — The planning commission has completed and is getting ready to present a new set of zoning regulations containing multiple changes compared to existing zoning with the aim of encouraging higher density/less restricted development within city limits. Other priorities include revamping historic preservation rules and reducing and/or dropping parking requirements. The first public hearing is set for January 25 at 5:30 p.m.
“It is a comprehensive rewrite. It is a completely different ordinance than the other one,” said Planning Director Mike Miller by telephone to The Bridge. Lines have been redrawn. Districts have been renamed. The Historic District has been redefined and redeveloped. Parking requirements have relaxed. “It is a complete change. It is a more refined zoning map. It is much more accurate and follows property lines. The old one didn’t. People would be partly in one district and partly in another. We’ve fixed a lot of those problems.”
As far as density goes, two new categories have been established: “mixed use” and “rural.” “Mixed use” allows one unit per 1,500-square-feet on a minimum 3,000-square-foot lot size with a minimum 45-feet of frontage. “Rural” allows 3.6 units per acre with a minimum lot size of 12,000 square-feet and 120-feet of frontage.
As for the old density definitions, they have been redefined. The old “high density” regulations called for one unit per 1,500-square-feet with a minimum 8,700-square-foot lot size, whereas the new “high density” calls for one unit per 3,000-square-feet with a minimum 3,000-square-foot lot size. The old “medium density” regulations called for one unit per 10,000-square feet with a minimum 10,000-square-foot lot size, while the new “medium density” district calls for one unit per 6,000-square-feet with a minimum 6,000-square-foot lot size and the old “low density district called for one unit per 43,560-square-feet lot size with a minimum 43,560-square-foot lot size while the new “low density” district allows one unit per 9,000-square-feet with a minimum 9,000-square-foot lot size. This new redefinition of unit densities on smaller lot sizes promotes what has been called “in-fill” — or more development within already developed areas.
The names of neighborhoods and areas have been tweaked as well. What used to be divided into several downtown districts is now called the “urban core.” New developments there would not be required to provide parking.
“We have vacant space in our downtown that simply can’t be filled because there is no parking for it. The new regulations make an assumption the city will solve and resolve the parking problems in urban core area,” Miller said. As for the rest of town, developers were previously required to provide 1.5 parking spaces for every dwelling unit. Under new guidelines, they would need to provide one parking space per unit. So, for an example, “a six unit apartment building would need six spaces instead of nine. That is not to say a developer can’t put in nine, but it is a matter of what we require as a minimum. It is going to be interesting to see if that is an issue. We were spending a lot of our real estate in parking … Obviously in the downtown a lot of parking is used. We definitely have a big change from the old to the new.” The new regulations would also waive parking requirements entirely for “infill” planned developments if they provide affordable or senior housing.
Beyond unit density and parking issues, the third big change is an adjustment to the historic district. Montpelier is on the National Register of Historic Places and the previous design review rules don’t match the rules for the registry, according to Miller. The historic district exists largely in the area known as the Cliffside neighborhood between the State House and Elm Street. The planning commission has redrawn the lines, so some people may find their properties inside it that were not before while others might be outside it. But every property that was in the national registry of historic places will nevertheless be within the design review district, and those rules have morphed as well.
“We’ve changed the standards of design district. We had designed our own rules. We had our own standards,” Miller said, but now “we shifted to be closer to the national” (standards) in order to be in synch with the rest of the country adhering to the United States Secretary of the Interior standards governing the National Park Service. Homeowners mostly run into issues when renovating or maintaining building exteriors. In particular, the treatment of windows, doors, siding and roofs have caused conflict between property owners and various city committees. It used to be that if you lived in a historic property and your windows were rotting out, you had to try first to repair the existing infrastructure before you would be allowed to use a modern replacement — even if the replacement were identical in design. The new regulations welcome modern replacements as long as they visually suit the time period.
However, some homeowners don’t see why people should be forced to live in the past.
“I very much value the city’s older buildings, particularly those downtown,” said Ben Huffman, longtime resident of the Cliffside neighborhood, which is in the historic design control district. But Huffman contends the historic design rules reflect a generalized “preservationist ideology” and whether or not a homeowner in the historic district gets a pass depends on how the rules happen to be interpreted by the officials attending that design review meeting that night.
“Many historic homes outside the district have been modified in unique, beautiful ways. Adding spice to neighborhoods, which, had the homes been restored to the highest historic preservationists’ standards, would likely have instead a pristine storybook quality that never originally existed,” Huffman said.
City zoning has created “two classes of historic homeowners,” Huffman added, which for years has grated on him and many of his Cliffside neighbors who this fall requested the planning commission to adopt different design rules, and to apply historic design control zoning to the entire area of the city that has for decades been on the State Register of Historic Places. This would include the many historic homes now free of historic zoning constraints such as those located in the College Hill and Meadow neighborhoods. The planning commission rejected this request. When the Cliffside neighbors then petitioned to be removed from the historic district, it too was rejected by the commission.
Other residents have conveyed written feedback earlier last year. For example, Carl Martin of Marvin Street writes, “I am unpersuaded by the proposal, which seems to be shaped more by commercial real estate interests than the needs and desires of residents.” Martin went on to say the plan is ecologically unsound in that it does not provide for run-off, erosion and urban “heat-sink” effects. Martin asserts green spaces must be integrated into the plan and that Sabin’s Pasture is a “great ecological” resource that “must be safeguarded.”
Another resident, Stephen Sease of North Street, former chair of the planning commission and former land use attorney and director of planning with the Agency of Natural Resources expressed lengthy reservations in a May 27, 2015 letter to the planning commission.
First, regarding Sabin’s Pasture, Sease writes, “The proposed ordinance divides Sabin’s Pasture into two zones. A strip of so-called Riverfront zoning is proposed along Barre Street and onto Country Club Road, according to the map contained in the handout. Riverfront calls for great density and a wide range of permitted uses. If built out, this new zone would likely block the view of Sabin’s Pasture from Barre Street, which is the perspective many people enjoy of the open space. Riverfront should not be applied to Sabin’s Pasture. It also makes no land use sense to expand Riverfront along little-used, dirt surfaced, Country Club Road. Steep slopes and railroad right of way will prevent most development here; even if it were to occur, it would amount to an unsightly and traffic oriented area with no relationship to the rest of the city. The Riverfront should be dropped along Sabin’s Pasture and Country Club Road.” Sease said he fears high density designation there would cause divisiveness and controversy in the community. A zoning map proposed earlier this year would have shifted the Pasture from mostly low density to high density; the latest draft map puts it in medium density residential.
Sease also expressed concerns about the maps and the proposal to convert medium density areas to high density, some of which were later changed back to medium density by the Commission. “Some areas appear more suited to this conversion than others,” according to Sease. In addition, increased higher density development would lead to traffic congestion and “decreases in livability and walkability.” In addition, Sease shared Huffman’s concern for keeping consistency in design requirements for a historic aesthetic.
And finally, a huge topic for Montpelier every few years that used to be dealt with in zoning regulations will no longer be contained under the same umbrella: flooding. Issues concerning river hazard rules (formerly referred to as ‘flood hazard’ rules) are excluded from the new document. These will be contained in a separate document, according to Miller, who explained that state government oversees zoning regulations and federal government oversees flooding problems.
Overall, Miller said he thinks the new plan is an improvement over the former one. “From a big picture this is better. Parking standards are better from an economic development standpoint … how it plays out over the next few years? It will be interesting to see,” Miller said, adding, “Some people wanted to have no parking requirements at all in town. I like the compromise.”
Miller said the first hearing is planned for January 25 at 5:30 during a regular planning commission hearing. The next is to be a more informal open house planned for January 27 from 4 to 6 p.m. The open house is meant to allow people to find out how the new regulations would affect their particular property from a variety of new standpoints.
Maps of the old and new districts here: